Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Wait...This Conversation Isn't Over?: A Review of Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal L. Downing

Ever have one of those awkward phone conversations where you think everything that needs to be said has been said. You then try to get off the phone, only to have the person start talking again...about the same thing...

My first thought? "Oh no."

I feel the same way about Crystal L. Downing's book Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication. This is a book that strikes me as 7 years too late to the scene. It would have fit in perfectly with the tremendous amount of Emergent (capital E) literature that was being written during that time. Instead, it is half-way to 2013 and we get a book that reminds us, yet again, that we need to rethink the way we communicate the truths of the Bible.

Let's run through the obligatory checklist of cliched concepts and ideas presented in this book:

  • A disregard of inerrancy? Check.
  • A reminder that we are indebted to the past while also needing to think anew for the future? Check.
  • A call to cultivate Spirit-led community? Check.
  • A reminder that political power is overrated and culture change comes from "the margins"? Check.
  • A call to delight in the pluralism found within Christianity? Check.
  • A declaration that terms like "conservative" and "liberal" are unhelpful? Check.
I could go on but...honestly, if you in any way were connected with the Emergent church movement or read any of the literature during that time, you've read this all before. Sure, it is dressed up with some really entertaining illustrations and with some pretty solid discussion on semiotics. But we have been here. We have done that.

My critique of the book (besides it being a rehashing of what has already been said) is basically the same critique many "conservative" (oops, sorry) Christians have had of most Postmodern scholars and those within the Emergent movement. Crystal basically guts her own argument by assuming the Bible isn't inerrant. I provide a few quotes for you to get a taste of her view:

"However, like any map, the Bible is a network of signs that offers multiple intersecting routes to the final destination [Jesus]: law and grace, free will and determinism, faith and works, mercy and justice, tradition and change."

I am not exactly sure what she means here, to be honest. Is she stating that the Bible offers all of these as valid ways to Christ? Is she saying that the Bible is contradictory in what it proposes? Obviously, it should be said that law is not a route to Christ. Further, free will and determinism are not routes to Jesus. Maybe I am just not hip enough to get it.

Further, while stating many Biblical scholars have abandoned inerrancy in light of their studies (particularly Bart Ehrman), she writes,

"How should we respond to Ehrman's thoroughly erudite scholarship? After all, he has educated himself in the original languages of the Bible and has studied and compared numerous ancient documents in order to pinpoint not only the hundreds of changes made to biblical manuscripts but also contradictions within the biblical text. To argue for biblical inerrancy in response makes Christianity seem intellectually untenable to scholars familiar with the most ancient texts. Isn't the point of the Bible to do the opposite: to draw people into relationship with God? Ehrman himself, a one-time evangelical committed to inerrancy, responded to his discoveries by becoming a self-proclaimed agnostic. For him God's Word had become reduced to mere human words." (73)

Her conclusion based upon this paragraph? "Christians on the edge [that is, attempting to deal with contemporary contexts] I would suggest, respond neither with inerrancy nor with agnosticism. Following the Word of God, they offer, instead, the (re)signing of truth." (73)

This is an absolutely disastrous paragraph and was (and is) so befuddling to me that I had to re-read it five times to see if I was getting what she was saying. First, I am wondering if Ms. Downing is aware of the plentiful and valuable critiques of Ehrman's "erudite scholarship"? If not, then she should check into it. If she is, then it seems incredibly disingenuous to say that we should basically abandon inerrancy because of his scholarship. In fact, I have on my shelf at least four solid books by authors who also know the original languages and disagree with Ehrman.So essentially, we should abandon inerrancy because, "To argue for biblical inerrancy in response makes Christianity seem intellectually untenable to scholars familiar with he most ancient texts." This seems to be a basic dismissal of current Evangelical scholarship and somewhat short-sighted.

But what is astounding is that the reason Ehrman left Christianity is because he couldn't justify any of his beliefs because he thought the Bible contained errors. The solution proposed by Ms. Downing solves nothing! If the Bible has errors, then how can we trust any of what it says? If you knew I lied a lot and had a predisposition for creating myth, then it would stand to reason that you wouldn't trust my messages very often. To say, "Well, let's just trust you, even though we know you are a liar" is foolish. That is, basically, what is encouraged here.

She cites approvingly of Peter Enns, who has championed the "Incarnational" model of the Bible. The Bible is both inspired by God but since it is written by men in a particular culture, it must contain errors. Quoting C.S. Lewis, Crystal states, "For [Lewis], 'the right spirit' is not one that seeks to either prove or disprove the Bible's scientific and historical accuracy: opposite sides of the same coin. For him, the right spirit is on the edge; it is a spirit that believes in the resurrection of Jesus while aware that the Bible has certain inconsistencies in the way it points to the same ultimate reality. The right spirit opens itself to the Holy Spirit, seeking in the Bible truths for life lived in relationship with our creation and redeemer." (79)

Apparently, if the Bible is unhistorical (or a-historical), it really doesn't matter because we can get great life lessons. Unfortunately, if the Bible isn't historically accurate, we have a problem. The problem is, we can't trust it. An illustration here might help:

I love the wild west and I try to read a lot about the wild west. Now, what is the measure of a good history book? The fact that it can paint a true picture of the events that happened while minimizing or eliminating error. There is a reason a book like Empire of the Summer Moon gets nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while The Frontiersman, though claiming to be true, did not. The one is extremely accurate and based on many historical sources. The other incorporates facts that are known to be incorrect. While both books are entertaining to read, only one really is right. Guess which one I am trusting?

In the same way the Bible is either historical or it is not. It is either trustworthy, or just a good fictional read. I admit, this sounds a lot like the whole "either/or" thing that is mocked within this book. But I am either/or because both/and simply doesn't work. It will lead to a doctrinal disaster. (As a quick aside, with Ms. Downing's confidence in the Spirit leading people, why is she so convinced the Spirit couldn't have created an inerrant Bible?)

An example of this is how Ms. Downing insists that the three non-negotiable truths Christians must communicate are God's triunity, the incarnation and the free gift of salvation. First, I must confess that her list is utterly anemic and the logic behind picking these three things strikes me as incredibly arbitrary. Norman Geisler has written on this topic and has done a far, far better job discussing the essentials. But second, because she has gutted the trustworthiness of God's revelation, what makes us think (or be led by the Spirit) these three essentials are true? What if there is no Spirit? What if this whole thing is arbitrary?

Her final statement is perhaps the most absurd of all: "In other words, recognizing something as 'a sign,' even without fully understanding what it means, is far preferable to worshiping the sign as holy in and of itself." (80) I'll admit, I am at a loss to figure this statement out. First, I know of no one that claims we know the Bible ("the sign") fully and no one that worships the Bible. That strikes me as a straw-man. She states a bit before this, "...some Christians seem more passionate about protecting the holiness of an inerrant sign (the Bible) than about humbly considering how to be transformed by what the sign points to (God's holy character and loving acts)." (80)

Hogwash. Every major defender of inerrancy I know also has a deep, abiding passion for seeing God's truth and transformation. Norman Geisler is a  great example of this as are many of the SBC theologians. Further, I would argue that if we cannot understand the sign (or can't trust the sign) then the sign doesn't even serve a purpose. Her opinion: Maybe the sign is right. Maybe the sign is wrong.

My thoughts? Get a new stinking sign you can trust! Otherwise you might end up in the lake. The trustworthiness of signs matter. That is why I recommend you stay far, far away from Changing Signs of Truth. With Ms. Downing's changing signs, the road ends quickly and the lake comes up mighty fast.

*Thanks to IVP Academic for providing a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.*

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